But last weekend Mr Howard muddied the waters and sent a message that could open a Pandora's box of paranoia and local violence. At the annual conference of Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators on Saturday, the Home Secretary backed the notion that they should go further than looking out of their windows and meeting from time to time: they should patrol the streets.
Of course he urged that any such moves be made to support the police, not supplant them, and that only volunteers should take part. But quite apart from the sudden policy shift that this reflects, the proposal reveals a desire for a quick fix of publicity and a lack of understanding for the consequences of his actions that is typical of the very offenders Mr Howard would like removed from our streets.
The essence of the problem is that there is no national strategy for crime prevention. It cannot be addressed piecemeal, either by more locks and bolts - target hardening, as it is known - or by private security firms recruiting a few ex- servicemen to drive the streets with mobile phones, who still turn to the police if they see anything strange. Like 'community', 'neighbourhood' is a nostalgic word which is hopelessly inadequate to describe the complex racial and social differences and tensions that now characterise much of Britain.
In North Kensington, west London, there are more than 30 ethnic groups living cheek by jowl. Even in the countryside, there is all too little neighbourliness left. Doors that once were left open are now bolted. Even in the safest parts of the country, elderly inhabitants lock themselves in for fear that scenes they have watched on crime reconstruction programmes or read about in the paper will happen to them. Areas of cities packed with local history have been bulldozed and replaced by anonymous blocks and estates where people do not even know their street names, let alone their neighbours.
But as Tim Hope, a criminologist from Manchester University, has described in his work for the Home Office on troubled estates, for the great majority of likely victims of crime there is no easy answer, such as Neighbourhood Watch. Most crimes, as well as the vast majority of victims, are among the poorest people, living in the worst conditions - estates from which stable families flee as soon as they can.
There is a need to enlist local people to come out and become involved in creating a sense of safety for one another, but not by prowling around reporting people who look 'different', much as pedestrians are stopped in Beverly Hills, or black people driving through villages in Staffordshire. That way lies further fragmentation - the stockade mentality: private condominiums, private shopping spaces, excluding anyone who does not qualify for entrance. Those who are further marginalised will create their own dangerous spaces, in which they and their children will feel no need to observe our rules.
The American black sociologist William Wilson has noted that young Italians in Brooklyn grow out of crime because they have adult role models and informal neighbourhood and family job networks. These keep an eye on adolescents as they hang around the streets - a real Neighbourhood Watch - and sweep them into jobs, placing them on the rung of the ladder of a career and adult responsibilities. But black youngsters, whose fathers may have disappeared long ago, lack both good role models and a local job network to act as a safety net. Excluded and idle, they fall prey to negative role models - professional criminals, especially drug dealers - who seem to be the only male adults taking an interest in them.
The subtext of the growth in vigilantism and the concern for citizens' action is the recognition that the police cannot deliver law and order on their own. What has not been acknowledged is the degree to which the police already rely on the public to achieve what they do today. On average, only a third of crimes with victims are reported to the police - 5 million last year. Only 25 per cent of those are 'cleared up' - which means the police believe they know who did them. Of those, only 2 per cent are 'solved' by the police themselves. The rest are dealt with through confessions and with help from the public, such as tip-offs.
The difficulty with extending that help is that even in public schools the notion of loyalty to one's mates is stronger than loyalty to the school. The same ethos exists on the streets. There is already great tension between generations, now that extended families and friendships have been scattered by urban redevelopment. Neighbours no longer feel able to monitor and chastise the behaviour of each other's children. These days such actions would be seen as 'grassing', and may lead to reprisals.
Moreover, as most crime happens indoors - such as burglaries and domestic violence - patrolling the streets, whether done by police or anyone else, cannot reach it. Like it or not, the only effective means of combating crime is to address the causes of criminality. That way we can all sleep better at night, and enjoy the shared use of our public spaces.
In these days of value for money, the real message we send to estranged young people is how we invest it: we spend pounds 9bn a year on punishing people, but less than 1 per cent of that goes on social crime prevention. As we slash budgets for youth services and sports fields, we cannot urge alienated young people to share our basic values if we devote the lion's share to excluding them further.
The writer is author of 'Living Dangerously: Young Offenders in Their Own Words' (HarperCollins, pounds 6.95) and a member of the European College of Urban Safety.
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